Canada has a history of receiving refugees from around the world. However, our record has always been pristine. In 1939, the SS St. Louis, with a boatload of Jewish refugees, was denied entrance into Canada and forced to return to Europe, on the brink of World War II.
It had only been less than a year since Kristallnacht, the night the Nazis descended on Jewish synagogues, shops and homes in Germany and Austria, smashing windows and seizing property. Ninety one Jews were murdered and 30,000 arrested. Kristallnacht marked the beginning of Hitler's Final Solution. Many Jewish families took flight.
Captain Schroder, the commander of the SS St. Louis, felt personally responsible for the 907 Jewish refugees who boarded his ship in June of 1939. In stark contrast to the treatment of Jews in Germany at the time, the captain ordered his crew to treat all of his passengers politely. During the two-week trans-Atlantic crossing, the passengers ate hearty meals and listened to a dance band nightly. The children played on the deck or swam in the swimming pool. On Friday nights, families were permitted to hold their nightly prayers in the dining room, where Hitler's portrait was temporarily removed.
The passengers started to breath a sigh of relief, the further they travelled from Germany. Adults told their children: "We're going away. We don't have to look over our shoulders anymore." The relief, however, turned to trepidation once the SS St. Louis reached its destination. In Cuba, authorities came aboard the ship to speak to the captain. Passengers kept hearing the word "Manana" which means "Tomorrow". But when tomorrow came, the response was the same. Captain Schroder pleaded his passengers' case for seven days, but to no avail.
The SS St. Louis headed to the Florida coastline hoping America would grant asylum to the refugees. However, despite direct appeals to President Roosevelt, U.S. officials also denied the Jewish refugees entrance.
The refugees last hope was Canada. When the SS St. Louis came within a two day steam of Halifax, Captain Schroder sent a plea to Canadian authorities to grant sanctuary to the Jewish refugees. University of Toronto history professor, along with other academics and clergy, personally petitioned Prime Minister McKenzie King. "Much to our shame, King, who had many Jewish friends, didn't force the matter," said Lunn.
Steaming back to Europe, the refugees had lost all hope. One passenger even slit his wrists and threw himself overboard. "If I close my eyes, I can still hear the shrieks and see the blood," said a then six- year-old refugee who saw it happen.
While some gave up hope, Captain Schroder had another plan in mind. Returning to Nazi Germany was out of the question. "Steaming back toward Europe, he promised his passengers he wouldn't return them to Nazi Germany and hatched a desperate plan to run his ship aground on the English coast if no safe port could be found."
In the end, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee came to their aid. The SS St. Louis docked in Antwerp, Belgium where the refugees were unloaded. Some stayed in Belgium while others resettled in France, the Netherlands and England. While the majority survived the Second World War, 254 were murdered by the Nazis who occupied three out of the four countries.
Captain Schroder wrote to the Committee on June 18, 1939, saying: "Before I leave Antwerp, I take the opportunity to thank you once more sincerely for the cooperation we have received from you personally and the different Committees in organizing so efficiently the distribution of my passengers..." (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27373131) Sadly, for his humane treatment of the Jewish refugees, Captain Schroder was relieved of his command of the SS St. Louis and banished to a desk job.
Jewish refugees on board the SS St. Louis circa 1939 courtesy